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In country NSW, a small town is embarking on an innovative plan to keep potential law-breakers out of the justice system. By John Power.

Justice Reinvestment on trial in Cowra

Cowra railway station.
Credit: ROB DEUTSCHER / FLICKR

For decades, Les Coe has watched the criminal justice system chew up and spit out the young people of Cowra, New South Wales, a sleepy country town best known for its wine and Japanese Garden.

As the CEO of the Local Aboriginal Land Council, Coe is painfully aware that, more often than not, it has been Indigenous kids who’ve suffered.

It could be hopelessness or dysfunction at home that drives a young teen away from school and on to drugs and alcohol. Before long they attract the attention of police for shoplifting or driving without a licence. So begins a downward spiral: arrest, followed by incarceration, followed by increasingly serious crimes.

“It’s become such a normal way of life for Aboriginal people in and out of jails here,” says Coe, “in the sense that once it starts at a young age, once they go into the system and they come out, they are part of that system for the rest of their life.”

Cowra, 300 kilometres directly west of Sydney, is not an extraordinary town: its Indigenous population of 7 per cent is significantly above the national average, but its crime rate is unremarkable for a small settlement in NSW. Its very ordinariness means it doesn’t diverge from the wildly disproportionate arrest and detention rates experienced by Indigenous youth across Australia.

With a population of just over 12,000 people, Cowra doesn’t collect race-based crime statistics, but those on the front line of youth justice believe the overrepresentation is broadly in line with the rest of NSW. Those state figures are stark: Indigenous youth are detained at almost 29 times the rate of their non-Indigenous peers, according to a 2014 report by the NSW Parliamentary Research Service. At the end of last year, more than half of the 289 young offenders in the state’s detention facilities were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

“Everyone is quick to grab the big stick and want to beat our kids around the head with it,” laments Cole. “All they need is a little bit of guidance or something: That was wrong, you shouldn’t have done that, you know?”

The feeling that the justice system has completely failed young people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, is pervasive in Cowra.

“In the years I’ve done this job,” says Helen Horton, a youth worker in the town, “I’ve seen kids come out a hell of a lot harder, and they feel let down. And at 13, 14, 15, you go in there almost like a brave adult. You’re still a little kid and you still need nurturing and love and compassion, and that’s the bit we miss out in the system.

“We don’t intervene too early,” she adds. “We actually don’t intervene enough.”

Fed up with the status quo, the community is on the verge of introducing a fresh approach to crime and punishment, Justice Reinvestment (JR), in the hope of charting a more promising path for its troubled youth.

JR is both simple and radical as a concept: public funds are redirected from costly prisons towards local services such as crime diversion, job training and substance abuse prevention. The aim is to reduce incarceration, nip crime in the bud and save tax money all at the same time.

“What that means to me is the political will of governments not to spend money on new prison beds, to actively decide not to spend that money, but to put it into those sort of community services,” says Dr Jill Guthrie, who introduced the concept to Cowra through a three-year exploratory project that wrapped up in April.

Despite the overrepresentation of Aboriginal youth in the criminal justice system, Guthrie, a Cowra native who works on Indigenous health and justice issues at Melbourne’s Lowitja Institute, was keen to emphasise how JR could work for everyone, and her research was not confined to one segment of the community.

Calculating that some $46 million had been spent on incarcerating people in the town during the past decade, she invited the community to decide what sorts of crimes could be dealt with outside the usual punitive channels.

The resulting list, including driving and drug and alcohol offences, pointed to potential savings of $23 million, half the cost of locking people up.

“Over one year, notionally, it’s $2.3 million,” says Guthrie. “So we then took the community through a process of how would you spend that $2.3 million? And of course they came back with the usual things like drug and alcohol services, a homework centre for our young kids, mental health services, a halfway house for people when they’re coming back to town.”

It wasn’t long before the community was on board.

Last December, Cowra Shire Council passed a resolution in favour of introducing a JR pilot in the town, the anchor of which would be a salaried co-ordinator to work with service providers to identify deficiencies and better integrate their activities.

“Organisationally, the main way forward for these kids is all the stakeholders working together, and not in silos – working collaboratively for the one outcome, and that we have this person at the centre of the wheel,” says Fran Stead, general manager of Cowra Information and Neighbourhood Centre, who has seen the challenges of reaching young offenders firsthand.

The final step to making all of this a reality is to win the backing of the NSW attorney-general, Gabrielle Upton.

Cowra mayor Bill West says discussions with the attorney-general have been fruitful, and he is hopeful funding for a JR scheme could be included in the NSW budget next year.

“Our state and local representatives worked very hard and have been very supportive, and worked on our behalf with the government and with the attorney-general to try to get this to come to fruition,” says the independent mayor, who has lived his whole life in the town.

Cowra may seem like an unlikely location for a radical rethink of Australia’s treatment of young offenders. After all, it’s true conservative heartland: Cootamundra, the surrounding state electorate, is one of the safest seats for the Nationals in NSW.

In fact, some of the most enthusiastic adopters of JR internationally have been deeply Republican US states, attracted in large part by the chance to shave large margins off their budgets. Between 2008 and 2009, Texas kept 9000 people out of jail and saved $443 million by using JR principles, according to the non-partisan Council of State Governments. Other American states such as Kansas and Arizona have seen comparable results with their own programs.

“It kind of appeals to left wing and right wing in a way,” says Guthrie.

While still jailing far fewer people than the US, Australia’s overall imprisonment rate has risen almost two-and-a-half times since the early 1980s, to 196 prisoners per 100,000 adult population last year. While juvenile detention rates have fallen, the figures for Indigenous youth have remained static and stubbornly high. Following the revelations of tear-gassing and other abuses at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory, the consequences of this are under possibly greater public scrutiny than ever.

Belatedly, Australia is starting to take notice of the American experience, and not just in Cowra.

In Katherine in the Northern Territory, community groups have been examining the possibility of a JR program there, while the South Australian government has committed to running two trials. In tiny Bourke, NSW, a trial has already been under way for two years, the positive results of which were recently highlighted in an episode of Four Corners.

In Cowra, people are aware that their experience will inform a pressing national discussion – perhaps even provide a new model of criminal justice for the rest of the country.

Having watched people around him lose futures and sometimes even their lives to the justice system his whole life, Coe hopes for real change.

“I’ve known people that have gone into the jails, and spent time in jails, and gotten out of jail and they’re dead now,” he says. “They didn’t last after spending time in jail.”

The success of Cowra’s bold vision, Coe says, will depend on building sorely lacking trust between each and every segment of the community.

“That’s from the young offenders, to the parents, to the people in the towns, to the whole Aboriginal community,” he says. “We’ve all got to build a little bit of trust, I believe, if we want to move forward as a country.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 22, 2016 as "Crime savers". Subscribe here.

John Power
is a Melbourne-based journalist.

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